Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Castle of Coloured Rooms (Continued).

My mother walked briskly away, and we descended further into the misty green labyrinth of the Garden. For the first time that day, I started to feel at ease, and a little giddy in a childish way. It was very still and peaceful in the Garden. Once you went sufficiently within, the place had a weirdly immersive affect. It began to feel as a world unto itself, whose narrow little paths formed an infinite latticework through an infinite milky greenness. The sky was a thin strip between the tall hedge walls, and the taller arms of the anima plants. Children have a peculiar capacity to grasp the things before their senses as an immense totality. I imagined a life for myself and my mother forever in the Garden, wandering its paths and searching for our way home. At various points in our journey, we would encounter ghosts, and hear their tales of the long vanished past, and of the inscrutable world that all time flows into, as rivers were said to wind into the ocean. We would often encounter the caretaker and his grandson, and sometimes the caretaker would drop hints, amid his endless antic digressions, that he knew the way out of the Garden. We would suspect that his grandson was wiser than he, but he would never speak, and his eyes would always be livid with terror.

While I composed these fancies, I was often wont to run away, but my mother reprimanded me, finally taking my hand in hers. We came at last to our garden, and I saw my name written for the first time: Altredi. I was a little unnerved by the experience, regarding it as akin to falling under an enchantment, to read one’s name. The priests in their homilies spoke of the All-father calling things and people into existence. I felt that I had unwittingly lost some precarious freedom and lightness in that moment, as though I had previously been a mote dancing wantonly in the slumber of the gods. It was darker inside the garden, the light coming through the strange shapes of the anima arms. A narrow border of soil ran around the plants, and my mother knelt there and gazed at them. There were five in total, their arms becoming entangled together into something akin to a canopy or roof. About the appearance of the anima, there is an abiding and unsettling fascination. There are those forms in nature, such as our visages and bodily frames, which we are not only accustomed to, but apt to endow with the supreme animisms of beauty and harmony. These things do not trouble us, nor lead us to unwonted consideration of the indelible strangeness of nature’s fecundity. However, there are other, rarer forms, particularly among the less conscious or wholly vegetative ladders of being, whose whole physical design unsettles all our innate sense of reason and proportion. I have seen, for example, certain types of aquatic beast whose dark, torpid eyes and gaping mouths resemble a monstrous parody of the human face, and seem a kind of slender filament of awareness stretched over the void of nature. It is in forms such as these, and perhaps in our dim relationship to them, that we are forced to confront the sheer inscrutability and strangeness of nature, and the potential perversity and irrationality of it, be that nature, in the final reckoning, the operation of a divine mind, or some mere process, akin to a vast game playing itself.

The anima is a prodigy among the strangest of nature’s creations. It base is covered by a spathe of two large, teardrop shaped petals. The petals are a very light pinkish hue, fashioned of a delicate and diaphanous material somewhat like a fine fabric. A towering columnar pillar, which the botanists call the spadix, rises out of the base of the anima, to a height of up to four metres. The skin of the spadix is coarse, tough, and furrowed; it is yellow in colour, darkening seamlessly to green towards the top. At roughly the centre of the spadix is a large, slit-like opening which reveals a shiny, reddish flytrap, whose glossy flesh reminded me of strawberries. This larger orifice is surrounding by a series of smaller, closed slits, which open in springtime, bearing the fruit of the anima. By far the strangest characteristic of the plant is the arms of which I have spoken, which extend outwards from the top of the spadix. They are a perfect miniature replica of the entire organism, which in turn produce a smaller replica, and so on, until the roof of the garden is a dazzling, disorientating mosaic of ever decreasing reiterations of pink, red, yellow, and green. There was something alluring about the plant, in the vivacity of its colours, and the sleek, shiny lustre of its fruit, which seemed to have punctured the skin of the spadix by dent of a ripe, eager swelling of growth; yet there was something patient and sinister about it too. It had the poise of a predator, and the pregnant stillness of an ingenious trap. I watched it for time, and then ducked out of our garden, leaving my mother to her reverent silence.

What happened then was brisk and startling. I looked to my left, and saw a small boy at the end of the path. At first I took him for the caretaker’s grandson, but I noted that his skin was unusually pale, and his hair thick and dark. His expression struck me as quite profound for a child, and deeply sad. He was like the grandson as I had imagined him in my earlier fancy: frightened, sorrowful, and somehow infused with a longing to speak of things that were forbidden. Then I felt a sudden prickling on the back of my neck, a kind of animal intuition of danger. I swung briskly around, and registered a vast dark shape gliding sinuously along the path towards me. I thought of a pitch black hawk or eagle, closing with slow, stately majesty upon its hapless prey. Only when the figure had come to a stop alongside me, I realized that it was a man of preternatural height and leanness of limb, ensconced in a flowing black cape. I have never seen a creature so tall and svelte. His hair was the colour of a raven’s coat, and his skin the pallor of a fresh corpse. His features were sculpted, aquiline, and regal. His eyes possessed a peculiar intensity, which appeared to derive not from any discernable passion, but rather owed to their incongruous intrusion upon a human face, so were they dark, fathomless of scope, and lacking all semblance of life. He regarded me for a time, and I him, frozen in terror. This was the first time that I saw my great, inscrutable antagonist.

My mother joined me, placing her arm on my shoulder, and presenting herself to the Master in an attitude of timorous abeyance. He went into our garden, and plucked from the anima a round, red fruit. I watched him bite into the fruit, with a gesture which somehow evoked both a depth of significance, and a sheer, somnolent detachment. It was ever the Master’s way, I would learn, and many wondered whether he was man, ghost, or something altogether inhuman. He took his leave of us then, walking slowly down the path to rejoin his son. We watched their shapes, the one squat and the other elongated, as they faded into the milky whiteness of the mists that shrouded the rim of the Garden.

Chapter 2.

My name is Caleb, and Altredi is the name of my family. Our history prior to the Walling of the Estates is a matter for the Genealogies alone, there being no particular legendry associated with us, beyond our mere existence in the shadowy time of heroes and wars. Within the Estate, our fortunes have been for the most part stable and modest, possessing only the glancing acquaintance with infamy and high repute which most families accrue in the course of their histories. Our men have been farmers, our women servants and seamstresses, and we have lived in the hamlet of Eliagard. In the twelfth cycle, an ancestor of mine called Alcade proved himself a subtle and devious strategist at the Game, and we lived for two short generations as nobles among the lush bowers and chiming groves of Samersol. Such upheavals, however, are most frequently short-lived, there being a tendency for new nobles to embrace the luxuries of this elevated station with an excessive gusto, falling promptly into dissolute habits not amenable to continued supremacy at the Game. Thus, courtesy of Alcade’s wine-sodden and incompetent grandson Dilucidid, we were soon back to our cottage in Eliagard, back to the clang of the morning bell, to the long trudge to muddy pasture land in the north, back to sending our young daughters to Samersol with their hearts in the mouths, and our mothers to help with the milk-crones or the Coven of Weavers, back to the old life and its familiar oppressions, as though waking ruefully from a dream. Such was life in the Estate. When summer came, and the sound of dulcet music and giddy revelry echoed nightly from the rooftops of Samersol, everybody in Eliagard could gaze across the river, and wonder wistfully how it must have been for some or other of their ancestors to live there, and move unencumbered through those magnificent revels.

The Altredi family almost attained glory in more recent times, when my great grandfather Procletus showed an extraordinary promise at the Game; many said that he would surely raise us to the status of courtiers, such was his preternatural skill. However, on the very cusp of his triumph, an eerie commotion was heard late at night: a sound of brisk motion and anguished howling. It woke everyone with a start, and the children wondered at it. Their parents were silent and pensive, for they had heard this particular commotion many times before, and knew with the instinct of alert beasts that somebody had climbed the wall, and fled the Estate. The next morning, everybody was stunned to discover that it was the bed of Procletus which was empty. This disappointment brought an extraordinary pall of fatalistic gloom over the Altredi’s, which hung over us still when I was a boy.

My father’s name was Adam. He was a broad, burly man with huge, hulking shoulders, and a ruddy, energetic, bovine face. He had thick, curly brown hair, which grew in tousled profusion about his ears, and had altogether abandoned his skull to fend for itself against elemental nature, making of his head a massive, polished dome, visible out in the fields from great distances, and surely instantly recognisable, were it not for the remarkable preponderance of this cranial type among the men who worked in the fields. His manner with the other farmers was one of persistently buoyant good humour, the men of the fields possessing, as all distinct groupings of individuals within the Estate, a kind of imperishable sense of community and brotherhood, in their case predicated upon a habitual mien of prickly, stoical taciturnity, leavened now and then by the dry smirk which was their manner of savouring a particularly piquant rustic witticism.

At home, my father was giddy and fond with us as children, a little more distant when we grew to adolescence, but nevertheless tolerant in the main of our noisy follies, and much more reluctant than many to resort to his belt as a means of achieving domestic equilibrium. Towards my mother, his demeanour was occasionally less restrained, and never appeared to me to express anything indicative of love or passion; however, the wayward course of my own life has meant that I have gained no personal experience of such a thing as a marriage, and my conceptions of love and passion may thus have but little of reality in them, and much of the idealized and heightened matter of keening ballads and winter masques. What I recall must acutely about my father was a kind of inarticulate, sometimes sullen, sometimes tender sorrow, which was his alone to brood over, and could be broached neither to his family nor his companions in the fields and the Tavern. It is likely, oddly enough, that the men with whom he laboured, and shared coarse jokes, probably understand his sorrow more acutely than we ever could, and provided it with a greater salve in their own unassuming fashion, for they also shared in it. It was the wounded pride, the profound sense of failure to one’s present kin and future descendents, which was attendant upon all men in the Estate who had failed to prosper in the Game.

My mother’s name was Merceides, and she was originally of a family which had dwelt in the hamlet of Ganolt, home to those who practised the trades and crafts. Some in Eliagard considered her family proud, since their males would often boast of the mention of distant ancestors in the marginalia of the Histories, and those times in the infancy of the Estate when they had been courtiers. Such things, however, were meaningless to my mother. She was tall, slender, and long-limbed, with lengthy, fine fair hair, which was parted at the middle of her brow, and flowed straight as narrow streams down to her waist. She had greyish blue eyes, and features which might be called ethereal, if such a word adequately describes a person whose concentration appears divorced to some essential degree from that ragged accruement of sensory jetsam which we are apt to call the world, and to which we afford at all times the comical seriousness which children bestow upon their trifles. My own looks, as my sister’s, were said to take after her; my brother was said to be like to my father.

The occupations available to women in the Estate, in contrast to many societies I have read of in the City, were severely limited, and set by traditions as old as the Walling. The wives of the highest courtiers, all of them the most exquisite beauties in the Estate, served a more or less ornamental function; they were bred and educated to be a kind of domestic objet d’art, more or less. I have heard it whispered that the courtiers, almost as though to dignify their wives the less, save the true heat of their ardour for youthful male lovers, who earn, for the undoubtedly wearisome tolerance of such attentions, lessons in polity and rhetoric. Among the nobles, whose station entitled them to the unhindered pursuit of refined indulgence, women were encouraged in the arts of music and sketching, while their husbands attained a certain dilettante erudition in the perusal of histories, poetry, theology, and philosophy. Among those of our class, which was comprised of farmers, tradesmen, and servants, women had principally to attend to the grind of child-rearing and household provision. The most common occupation attendant upon a young maid was that of servant to the nobles or courtiers, wherein she ran the inveterate risk of seduction, the males of higher classes invariably conceiving of their servants as antidotes to all minor nuisance, including that of any and all momentary impulse. Once married, our women rarely occupied any position outside of the household, save for those, such as my mother, who went among the Coven of Weavers. The Weavers, of whom I will speak in greater detail by and by, worked in the main on gowns and all manner of exquisitely crafted hosiery for the nobles. In this work, my mother took an extraordinary pleasure, which was by necessity a selfless one, since the closest she could ever come to the fruit of those patient labours was to gaze upon the ladies, in the height of the summer revels, as she served wine to their husbands, or perchance washed their feet, tired as they must be by the travails of graceful and beguiling deportment. Her other great joy was her children, of which there were two boys, my brother Calidore and I, and one girl, Briah, the eldest. In my youth, I imagined that she loved Calidore and me more than Briah, for there was frequent and fierce enmity between them, as likely over a trifle as a matter of any grave significance. Yet such was not the case, since the relation of women to men seems to follow after that of great toil, investiture, and eventual disappointment, and between women and women that of some enmity, some kinship, and eventual solace; such, I suppose is the eternal relations between difference and similitude.

What I recollect most keenly regarding my mother was how she loved me, and how I loved her, when I was child. I remember this both with a kind of singular acuity, and an impenetrable opacity, since I also recall that, upon reaching a certain age, or passing some unknown landmark in the subterranean pathways of time and growth, I could no longer understand, nor could ever again experience, such love; it belonged to the lost country of childhood, and all memories whose character may be rekindled, but whose totality remains elusive. It is thus, perhaps, that many mothers would have eternal infants, if such was the way of nature, and people everywhere seek such extravagances of affection from one-another, and finally, from shadowy and benignant deities, whose warm embrace might enfold the whole of creation. I also recall that my mother’s temperament was habitually high-spirited and gay, but she was beset, from time to time, with extraordinary and prolonged fits of lacrymosity, upon which nobody, least of all herself, ever commented, and which impeded her not a wit in whatever duty she attended to.

My brother Calidore was four years my senior, and when he was yet a boy, I regarded him as a man, for he was stronger in build than I was, and possessed a greater awareness of the nature of things. My understanding of the world as a child was to a large degree the fruit of endless questions I asked both my father and my brother, and things the Weavers told me in their impertinent and mocking fashion. Before he passed through the Red Room in the Castle, Calidore and I were inseparable playmates, and we wound our boisterous way through the narrow paths that skirted about the Little Wood and the Garden of Antiquity. The recollection comes to me now that we always played upon paths, for there was scarcely a place about us which we were permitted to enter. We could not go into Samersol, for the nobles there had no use of ragged boys such as ourselves, and would certainly have had the guards beat us for the presumption of our entry, and the mere repugnance of our presence. Nobody was permitted to go into the Woods, for an evil spirit dwelt there, who whispered profanities of such subtlety that they sounded like the breeze, and thus tiptoed through the ears to caper and gambol freely in the mind. Children could not go unaccompanied into the Garden of Antiquity, and even to play in the shadow of the Garden’s statues was a dangerous business, since those statues were said to date back to a time when men had unlimited expertise in channelling evil influences through the mere design and proportion of matter. One of the epics speaks of a pot whose shape, once gazed upon, lead to the beholder to inordinate despair and certain self-annihilation. With this in mind, there was simply no telling what nefarious ingenuity statues might posses, whittled though they be by the ages.

So, we went about those prohibited places, and off in the distance we could see the vague outline of guards making their steady patrols beneath the languid sway of evergreen woodland. As luck would have it, Calidore and I soon found the perfect game for our interminable playground of narrow paths and ominous gardens. It was the habit of our father, when it was not prudent for him to be in the Tavern, to sit us down by the fire, and spin us yarns from the Heroic Ages prior to the Walling. Our favourite heroes quickly became Hermackulus and Enkidu, for, as they had been tossed by god-inspired winds through all the oceans of the world, so did they wander the panoply of literary registers, being one moment worthy of reverent silence, and the next, gales of deep guffawing. It was said that between them, they represented the great antithetical pillars of the masculine character. Hermackulus was the man of immensurable physical strength, indomitable courage, and single-minded pursuit of honour and duty. Enkidu, on the other hand, was the man of irascible lassitude, of intellectual and verbal dexterity, of oily and disreputable charm; the fish in the water of holidays, the blessed companion at the wine stoop, the artist, and the thief. These, the Hemackulogah tells us, were the two halves of the perfect man.

The following is the tale of their meeting: in the years of peace, Hermackulus put a boast about the island of Lemnos that no man whatsoever could better him in combat. The boast had been made during the aftermath of a feast, when formal custom dictated that each able-bodied youth made some boisterous assertion or another. Hermackulus thought little of it, for he was truly the strongest in all of Lemnos, and it was incumbent upon those of godlike strength to say these things from time to time, at social functions and suchlike. He was truly surprised a week later when the news came to him that an upstart named Enkidu had disputed his claim, and challenged him to appear at an appointed date in the old amphitheatre outside the village of Carnock. Hemackulus immediately made great haste to the village of Carnock, being waylaid on-route by an adventure in which he was turned into an old woman, thus to resolve the curiosity of the gods as to whether it was young men or old women who derived a keener pleasure from the physical act of love. Being restored to his former youth and masculinity, Hermackulus arrived in Carnock at the appointed time, and was stunned to discover a tiny, rotund man with a merchant’s oily sneer awaiting him. Certainly, Enkidu would have been annihilated, but he practised a cunning wile upon Hermackulus, which came to be known as the Wile of Many Enkidu’s, and later formed the basis of a philosophical parable which argued for the impossibly of motion. The wile went as follows: Enkidu told Hermackulus that he would never defeat him. Hermackulus laughed mirthlessly, and said–

-With one blow, I will send you scuttling to the shades of your ancestors.

Enkidu answered –

-If you kill me, you will truly never defeat Enkidu!

Hermackulus was sorely troubled, for he immediately suspected a wile, and knew himself to be a man ill-equipped to deal with stratagems of even moderate cunning.

-I have not come seeking the maddening conundrums of an oracle! Explain yourself!

He bellowed. Thus Enkidu:

-In preparation for this combat, the man called Enkidu gathered about him a great number of men who look like Enkidu. These men he ordered to take upon themselves the name of Enkidu, and go about the island of Lemnos answering to that name. It may be that I am Enkidu, or one of those men who resemble him, and answer to his name. If you kill me, and I am one of those pretenders, then you will not have defeated Enkidu. If, on the other hand, you kill me, and I am truly Enkidu, then it would be as though you had never defeated me, for you could not be sure of it in your heart. There would always be those others, going about the island answering to my name, and among that number, surely, one of them could be myself.

Hermackulus was seething with rage now; his veins had expanded to the width of an infant’s wrists.

-I’ll kill them all!

He bellowed. Thus Enkidu:

-Would you really commit yourself to that life? You might kill, say, five men answering to the name of Enkidu, and say to yourself “Well, I have killed five now; surely there is a reasonable chance that the real Enkidu is among that number.” But how could you say such a thing? Not knowing how many Enkidu’s there were to begin with, there is no way to possibly calculate when you have even made a start at your quest. Do you see how my name will come to haunt you? At first, you will kill a few, and flatter yourself one of them must have been Enkidu. Then you will go back to the land of your people, and try to take your ease, feasting and hunting as you did in times past, but a report will always come to your ears of another Enkidu. Always a report of another Enkidu. And were you to actually kill the real Enkidu here today, then those men will go by that name until their last drawing of breath.

There was long silence. Finally, Hermackulus prostrated himself before the oily little man.

-I am defeated.

he said, and thus began the tumultuous life-long association of Hermackulus and Enkidu.

Postscript. To those readers who might regard the description of the anima plant as an excess of the authors diseased fancy, I would draw your attention to the mighty amorphophallus titan:

Roughly translated, that means “large misshapen penis.” When featured on The Private Life of Plants, famed naturalist Sir David Attenborough was forced to re-christen this botanical prodigy titan arum, so as to preserve the delicate sensibility of the BBC viewer. Native to the tropical forests of Sumatra, the titan arum is also called the “corpse flower”, because its fragrance is said to resemble rotten eggs and decomposing flesh.


You Have Lost The Game said...

That plant looks the sort that would tent Peter Wyngarde's eye and form a tear at the corner of his trousers.

Tristan Eldritch said...

Peter who?